We in education are fond of buzzwords that reflect the latest, hot trends or newest resources or research. Scarcely can we attend a professional learning session or listen to an educational leader without hearing the newest eduspeak (That’s another one.): relevance, engagement, child-centered, empower, brain-based, collaboration, authentic, etc. One term that is not new but is making a comeback is rigor. Recently, our district has begun a renewed emphasis on the application of rigor, which is a good thing. However, there is something of a lack of clarity as to its meaning and how it should be manifested in the curriculum. In our defense, even the dictionary definitions of rigor can often be of little help. Dictionary.com defines rigor with such unappealing phrases as “strictness, severity, or harshness”, “the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.”, “scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence”, etc. Few teachers today would strive to create a classroom with this type of climate. I posed the question on Twitter last week, and received only one response. My Dallas friend Paul Wood described rigor as “causing someone to think, digging deeper. Not just surface thinking.” Discussions with co-workers expanded on this theme and added the element of increasing cognitive load. A search online found a repeated theme of “high expectations”, which is good, but still not concrete, as opinions on what constitutes high expectations can widely differ.

Although the precise definition remains somewhat elusive, something of a consensus was reached among some of the people with whom I spoke about how rigor can be achieved when using technology in the curriculum. Too often, technology has not contributed rigor to the classroom because it has been used merely as a substitute for student work that is not rigorous to begin with. PowerPoints or word processing documents are used as a replacement for worksheets or pencil-and-paper essays. Student response systems assess students’ knowledge at the basic, recall levels that might have been assessed using multiple-choice, paper tests. The interactive whiteboard or document camera replaces the dry-erase or chalkboard. While such activities may increase student engagement at a very shallow level, they do not ask anything more from the student. The use of technology alone is insufficient as a means of increasing rigor.

So, then, how can technology be leveraged in a way that increases cognitive load and facilitates genuine rigor in the curriculum? One step teachers can take is to apply Bloom’s taxonomy, a strategy very familiar to all educators. When designing a technology-rich student learning opportunity, we should strive to use the tools to encourage and develop higher-level thinking. In the current incarnation of Bloom’s, higher-level thinking occurs at the analyzing, evaluating, and creating levels. I’ve written and presented quite a bit on the topic of technology and creativity lately, and it is a topic near and dear to me. In my youth, I seriously considered becoming an artist when I grew up. One of the primary reasons I abandoned this idea was the generally negative opinions I encountered from many influential adults on the subject, both spoken and unspoken. This negative atmosphere largely persists today, as subjects such as music, art, graphic design, etc. are bemoaned as “frivolous” by those advocating a “back-to-basics” view of a rigorous curriculum.

Rather than expounding on the reasons why I believe such a view is complete nonsense, I’ve instead shared a video (below) by Sir Ken Robinson. He is a strong proponent of increasing opportunities in the curriculum, and I’ve shared videos of his talks before. This one focuses on the ways that creativity and rigor are actually far from mutually exclusive, and he makes a strong case for the idea that the act of creativity is a highly rigorous process. It involves planning, originality of ideas, and the making of a meaningful product. Creativity is very often a highly collaborative process that involves a great deal of critical thinking, as well. When we thoughtfully design technology-rich opportunities for our students to make a film, craft a simulation, design an object or structure, or create a visual, musical, or physical representation of an idea or concept, we take advantage of the best capabilities of technology. We encourage the highest levels of rigor. When we do that, the lower levels so prominent in our accountability assessments will become easy.